There can be many ways of telling the story of the ’90s figure skating bad girl Tonya Harding. Craig Gillespie, the film’s director, chooses a frank, uproariously funny dark comedy about dashed dreams, bumbling criminals and a little girl lost in the centre of a whirlwind.
Not a standard sports movie but a crazed crossbreed, the film makes you laugh, cringe, get angry, upset, confused, enlightened, entertained and almost tearful and awed. The opening credits mention the film to be “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.”
The issue in question is the 1994 knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya’s glamorous and exceedingly graceful rival in skating, a scandal that made Harding the most notorious woman in the world. During a practice lesson of the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Nancy was attacked by a man who was later identified as an associate of Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. As Harding’s involvement became clearer, a narrative easily formed, splashed on the pages of tabloids and the evening news: The beautiful “American princess” versus her rough-hewn rival, whose refusal to sand off her thorny edges meant she would never fully fit into the establishment she sought to excel in. That this narrative congealed so quickly is indicative of how certain strictures are often placed on women’s identities, especially when rivalry and ambition are involved.
The narrative is a time-flipping, many-sided mixed chorus of accounts, a kaleidoscopic view of what occurred. You know that it’s almost factual yet gleefully bogus because Harding (a brilliant, dazzling and comically great Margot Robbie) and her blissful teen first-date/loser ex-husband Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) serve as the movie’s bickering bookends.
We get to meet the former couple in present-day. Middle age, long divorced and favouring wildly mismatched perspectives the narrative follows them through an extended flashback to their raunchy, rowdy younger lives. Under the sure hand of director Craig Gillespie, the movie turns into gonzo classic when Harding narrates of her being 15, that very instant the gorgeously mature Robbie appears onscreen in high-waist jeans and unspoiled innocence.
Robbie, unforgettable as Leonardo DiCaprio’s hot-tempered trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, outshines herself as the title character, gracefully swinging between irony and agony amid surprisingly good skating. She portrays a self-described Oregon “redneck” and high school dropout. Tonya has gathered a pile of JV trophies even before she is a teen and her eyes are on the big prize. Instead of graceful ballet and classical music, she skated athletic, rock ’n’ roll routines, an extreme-sports strategy. As the first American woman to jump the difficult triple axel, Tonya powered herself into sports history, class prejudice be damned. Still, she couldn’t get the respect that judges awarded to fellow Olympic competitor Kerrigan, an elegant miss goody two-skates.
Then we meet her abrasive, frequently married, frequently single mother LaVona Golden. Played to perfection by Allison Janney, LaVona pushes her skate-loving 3-year-old into a children’s class so one day she might land a job in “the Ice Capades or something.” Dirt poor and foulmouthed, LaVona raises Tonya, her sixth child from her fourth husband, with tough love — except without the love. No actress tries harder to make herself detestable as does Allison, even down to her appearance, framing her weathered wrinkles in oversized plastic glasses and a thick pageboy clump of mud-brown hair. She is repulsive but her caustic personality is compelling.
Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s goon of a boyfriend. Stan plays him as a quiet, meagre nerd in a sweater although Gillooly is brutal, quicker to punch out Harding than engage with her in a conversation. Their passion runs hot, because neither of them know any better, or how to break the poisonous cycle of abuse.
A ‘red-neck upbringing, a relentless mother and a goon of a husband swirls and forms a sort of inevitability that leads to the incident we know Harding for, attacking her opponent in sports. The attack was masterminded by Harding’s ‘bodyguard’ (Paul Walter Hauser), who hired a couple of even bigger goons to carry out the attack.
The film is packed with moments of ‘I can’t believe what I just saw’ laughs and then leaves you wondering ‘Why am I laughing?’ For instance, there is a scene where during a marital spat, Harding wields a shotgun. As she pumps another shell, she pauses and tells the camera, ‘I never did this.’ Gillooly tries to win back her love by sending a threat letter to rival Nancy which only sets the dominoes falling, ever faster.
The film follows the events that made Tonya a household name and eventually into trailer-trash jokes. It doesn’t condemn Harding. Nor does it use her hard upbringing as a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. The film follows her to one of her post-skating careers as a female pro boxer, where she’s literally knocked down but stubbornly keeps getting up again.
Craig Gillespie has brought about a dense sociological essay about sports, women, family dysfunction, class prejudice and the American dream. With this film he proves that comedy does not have to be silly. Comedy can be about important things.